Weather Forecast


State commissioners Jesson, Cassellius visit Bemidji to discuss education, health and human services funding

Lucinda Jesson, left, commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, and Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the state Department of Education, host a roundtable Friday morning at the American Indian Resource Center to discuss legislative proposals. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — A foster family who has for two years been caring for a special-needs teenage boy wants to adopt him, to officially make him part of the family.

But under Minnesota guidelines, the family would actually lose financial benefits by doing so, cutting in half their payment as a foster family.

After two years with this family, the state begins pushing to find a permanent home for the boy, but the family, with several biological children of their own, is stuck, unable to afford to keep caring for the teen without the financial benefits.

"Meanwhile, the child is devastated and feels betrayed by his social worker and foster parents," said Carmen Haugen, adoption program director with North Homes Children and Family Services.

Haugen was one of nine panelists taking part in a Friday morning gathering to discuss legislative proposals that will impact families and children.

Haugen, while using the above example, said she believes a proposal from Gov. Mark Dayton would help in that specific case.

Dayton has proposed consolidating three programs into one, to be known as Northstar Care for Children, to support permanency for children with new placements. It would provide a monthly payment based on a child’s age.

"Special-needs kids are expensive," Haugen said. "This family lived an hour away from … services. It’s a problem and I think the Northstar Care plan is going to address that problem."

But the Northstar Care plan, while included in Dayton’s budget, is not in the House budget and just "one piece" of it is in the Senate’s budget, said Lucinda Jesson, commissioner of the state Department of Human Services.

Jesson and Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the state Department of Education, took part in Friday’s panel and said Dayton’s goal is to improve outlook for families and at-risk children through a multi-department approach.

More than 40 percent — 42.5 percent — of the state’s first-graders qualify for free or reduced lunch, Cassellius said.

"I think if most of Minnesota knew that, they would be outraged and very willing to raise the revenue to change that statistic," she said.

She, herself, came from such a position. Her mother, who never obtained her high school diploma, was 16 when she had Cassellius’ sister and 20 when she had Cassellius. They lived on welfare.

"The only way I broke through that was getting a good education," she said, noting that Head Start, parks and recreation, and other support programs made a difference. "It’s these kinds of coordinated efforts that help lift families and children out of poverty."

Susan Hoeft, an elementary principal with Greenway Public Schools in Itasca County, said she has seen students on the first day of school. Some are prepared, with backpacks full of supplies, the students’ social and development skills right on track.

"And then I see the children that come through the door and there is just disorganization," she said, "disorganization in their life, no continuity in their care at home."

Hoeft praised a proposal to double the number of schools receiving mental health grants, noting that for many communities, it’s a need not just for the services, but for transportation.

"In Itasca County, we’re very fortunate because we do have a supportive, collaborative mental health community that supports our children in our community, but I think that’s what we need more of at the very early age," she said.

The bill is in both Dayton’s and the House’s bills but is not in the Senate bill, Jesson said.

Jesson said the legislation is particularly important in rural Minnesota, because, if a child has mental-health issues, it could take an hour to drive one way to see a specialist, requiring the child to not only miss school, but the guardian to be out of work.

"Frankly, because of both those things, it’s just not as likely to happen," she said.